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Sense of Place

Roxana Robinson takes her cue from the bigger picture



Roxanna Robinson enjoying the fruits of her labor - overlooking her garden which seemlessly melds into the forest.

Photos by Kindra Clineff

If Roxana Robinson’s landscape just sort of slips into its surroundings, that’s totally intentional. If there are no obvious boundaries between cultivated areas and the adjacent West Cornwall woods, then Robinson figures she’s done her setting justice. Although the garden that the novelist forged around her mother’s family summer house merges left and right with the local vernacular, make no mistake about it, a whole lot of head time was spent feathering Treetop into its outskirts. Blurring lines is what this garden is all about.

Basically, Roxana Robinson was just practicing an extension of her trade when she began preparation to put a garden into the space the great great granddaughter of Henry Ward Beecher and great great great niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe took under her wing ten years ago. Novelists are notoriously observant and true to form, Robinson—author of  Sparta, Cost, Sweetwater, and This is my Daughter, as well as the definitive biography Georgia O’Keefe: A Life—was dutifully spending life with eyes wide open, monitoring what she was seeing and hearing all around when she began translating that awareness into a cultivated area. In truth, she had to accomplish a whole lot of earth-moving to create planting spaces around the unbelievably quaint Arts & Crafts home where she’s summered since childhood. Making it even quainter (but much more level and plant-friendly) required some drainage tricks and considerable expertise. Indeed, she called in the talents of friend and famed landscape designer Patrick Chassé for advice on translating her concepts into practical terms, leveling the playing field, and steering water away from the house. The result is a ledge and ravine configuration with planting pockets and streambanks custom made for inserting goodies of the photosynthesizing kind. Somehow she manages to extend the Arts & Crafts mood outward with just a few meticulously placed focal points and accents. But nothing calls attention to itself, except perhaps in late summer when the fervent plants in Margueritaville explode into flower in unison.

Robinson insists that natural was a no brainer, but not everyone would share that awareness. “I couldn’t plant an Austin rose here,” she says of the mindset that made Treetop feel nearly wild, “it would have to be a rugosa rose instead.” Similarly, boxwood hedges were not her speed—not because she has anything against foliage plants but because airy, unsculptured shapes are what inhabit the woodlands that frame her space. Ferns forge the foundation of her composition, “They catch the light, they move, they perform all season long”. Indeed, ferns of all stripes furnished inspiration for the quieter aspect of the garden around the house. She calls that area Sissinghurst, and has kept its palette purposefully muted. We’re talking geraniums, white bleeding hearts, blue and white baptisia, columbine, Jacob’s ladder, primroses, and similar understudies. Not all the plants are native, but none are jarringly different from the genius of the forest all around. 

Farther from the cottage, as you approach the foot bridge to her writing studio, a whole different mood comes into play. That’s what she calls “Margueritaville” where you get the jolt of electricity as monarda, crocosmia, asclepias, verbenas, evening primrose, tropical salvias, tithonia, and similar strident bloomers do their thing. She jokes about its comparative pulsating throb, but truth is, all that color is cushioned in plenty of green. And those flowers lure in a whole army of pollinators who might not otherwise be present if foliage was the only protagonist.

There’s action, there’s drama, but also the slow syncopation of a stage well set. Meanwhile, Roxana Robinson is the brewmaster and narrator behind the scenes. Then she sits back and lets the action unfold. And isn’t that just like a good novelist? Flowers seed in from the surroundings and thicken the plot, roots scramble around and get into trouble, something dies, but something is born. It’s the horticultural version of a page turner. This story is to be continued.


Eco-Friendly Homes & Farm

The Washington Environmental Council is hosting a Farm & House tour for their scholarship fund on Saturday, Sep 29, from 1-5 pm. This is a self-guided tour of eco-friendly and architecturally significant houses in Washington as well as a tour of the Back 40 Farm. Two of the homes are eco-friendly: a 1966  Sears Roebuck kit  house and an Arts and Crafts style home on eleven acres. The iconic Cogswell Tavern saltbox, built circa 1756, hosted General Washington at least once. The Back 40 Farm will be open for tours. All proceeds from the tour go directly into the scholarship fund. Tickets are $50 and can be purchased online at farmandhouse.eventbrite.com  or at 860-868-0845.

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January 2019

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